Prakash Curates Exhibit on J.W. Morrice

The traveling exhibition, Morrice – The A.K. Prakash Collection in Trust to the Nation, is the story of an artist, a collector, and two kinds of Canadian identity. It offers a contemporary reading of the work of Canadian painter James Wilson Morrice through the eyes of the prominent Canadian art dealer Ash K. Prakash.

The show is built around Prakash’s $20 million collection of the artist’s work that he generously donated to the National Gallery of Canada in 2015. The collection was built up over 3 decades and speaks to the collector’s passion for the artist’s work.

The exhibition is curated by Katerina Atanassova, Senior Curator, Canadian Art, at the National Gallery of Canada. An important curatorial choice was to include a video interview of Prakash talking about his collection and his interpretation of the artist’s paintings. Including this video shifts the exhibition from an artist retrospective to a conversation between artist and collector around national and personal identity.

J.W.  Morrice a Canadian Artist

Morrice born in 1865 was the son of a Montreal merchant. Originally he studied law but after graduation abandoned the practice to pursue a painting career. To do so he moved to Paris to further his studies with French masters of the day. Unlike most Canadians who studied abroad, Morrice did not return to Canada after his studies, but only made short visits to the continent at Christmas throughout his adult life.

Morrice did stay connected to his native land on a professional level. Over the years he exhibited in Canada and was part of several artist associations including the Ontario Society of Artists, the Art Association of Montreal and the Royal Canadian Academy.

He also fostered many relationships with Canadian painters in Europe including Maurice Cullen and William Bryamer. Because his work was often shown in Canada, it was an important influence on the modernist style of the Group of Seven and especially to the work of the artist A.Y. Jackson.

“It was through (Maurice) Cullen and Morrice that we in Montreal first became aware of the fresh and invigorating movements going on in the art circles of France,” A.Y. Jackson wrote in 1966. (Larsen, Montreal Gazette)

A.K. Prakash – Canadian Identity

As if mirroring the experience of Morrice, Prakash was born in Ambala, India, and immigrated to Canada in 1968 after completing his studies at the University of Michigan.

For two decades he worked in the Canadian government most notably for the Privy Council Office and the Prime Minister’s Office. In 1979 he discovered a passion for art while working for UNESCO in Paris. In the early 1990’s, he left the civil service to devote himself to collecting and art scholarship. Now considered one of Canada’s most important art dealers, he has also contributed to Canadian art through his scholarship and the publication of several books on Canadian art.

The pair represent two versions of Canadian identity. Morrice was born in Canada but spent his adult life abroad. Prakash grew up abroad but has spent his adult life in Canada. It is not their Canadian identity that unifies these two men but their lived experience as global citizens.

Morrice’s Mood Landscapes

Morrice is considered a Post-Impressionist painter. Like the Group of Seven he is best known for his small oil sketches (or Pochades). His refusal to abandon the figure or his urban setting place Morrice apart from his impressionist contemporaries. On an aesthetic level, Prakash argues that it is the sense of mood in his work that makes him one of the great early modernists.

His work is less interested in descriptive reality and is instead “a search to transform painting from a vehicle of seeing to an aid to feeling.” (National Gallery of Canada) Prakash explains that where the impressionists were directed by light, Morrice employs light to direct the emotional response of his viewer.

“For Morrice a landscape was a composed expression of a mood, of un état d’âme as he wrote in one of his sketchbooks.” (Hill, Morrice at Montreal)

Morrice’s work expresses the melancholy of an outsider. The existentialism of Camus’ LÉtranger comes to mind. Constantly traveling he paints the streets and cafes of Europe and Northern Africa. Subjects are seen from a distance and disconnected from the viewer. They are engaged in their own private world and seem unaware of the artist’s gaze. The audience is placed in the position of voyeur or tourist: observing scene without knowing how to engage.

Prakash describes Morrice as “at home nowhere and out of place everywhere” and adds “I relate to that.”

Morrice Luxenbourg
James Wilson Morrice, Luxembourg Gardens, Paris, c. 1905, Photo National Gallery of Canada

Art that Expresses the Eternal

In 1985, the time of his last major retrospective, Morrice was read as a Canadian living abroad. But relating Morrice’s émigré identity to his own experience, Prakash uses Morrice as a bridge between the cultural identity of natural born and naturalized Canadians.

“Morrice has the unique ability to acknowledge his experience of life and, through his paintings, to distill a moment into that which is eternal and does not change”. (National Gallery)

This inclusive look at identity is relevant and important in our age where national identity is evolving and its rhetoric is too often used to divide us.  Morrice’s search for the eternal speaks to our shared human experience – one that transcends time, place and creed.

Prakash calls his donation a gift to the nation.  The exhibition is accompanied by a beautiful catalogue free to visitors. At the National Gallery until March 18th the show will travel to the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of Alberta and the Musee d’art de Joliette.

Morrice Venice
James Wilson Morrice, Canal San Nicolò, Lido, Venice, 1904, Photo National Gallery of Canada


Mclaren, Leah. “The Collector: How Ash Prakash became the preeminent art dealer for the country’s wealthiest families.” Toronto Life, October 17, 2012.

Adams, James. “Collector Ash Prakash donates Morrice paintings to National Gallery.” Globe and Mail, December 8, 2015.

Hill, Charles C. Morrice  at Montreal. Canadian Art Review, Vol. 13, No. 1 (1986), pp. 52-59

“Morrice : The A.K. Prakash Collection in Trust to the Nation Catalogue.” National Gallery of Canada.

Larsen, Wayne. “James Wilson Morrice, Montreal’s troubled bohemian.” Montreal Gazette, April 3, 2015.

Kehinde Wiley and Winslow Homer in Conversation

Winslow Homer with his painting The Gulf Stream

KehindeWiley on Winslow Homer

“I regret very much that I have painted a picture that requires any description – The subject of this picture is comprised in its title and I will refer these inquisitive School ma’ams to Lieut. Maury [author of the Physical Geography of the Sea] – I have crossed the Gulf Stream ten times and I should know something about it. The boat and sharks are outside matters; matters of very little consequence – they have been blown out to sea by a hurricane. You can tell they ladies that the unfortunate hero who is now so dazed and parboiled will be rescued and returned to his friends and home and ever after live happily-” Winslow Homer in response to a request from his dealer, Knoedler, for an explanation of The Gulf Stream.

Refusing to give any explanation, Winslow Homer forces the viewer to come up with his own interpretation of this painting.

In his new show In search of the Miraculous at the Stephen Friedman Gallery, the artist Kehinde Wiley offers his own interpretation of the work of Homer and invites the viewer to revisit a seminal moment in history.

In this show, Wiley also takes inspiration from the work of JWM Turner and Hieronymus Bosch, but I was particularly intrigued by his reference to the fellow American painter.

In 1988, curator Peter H. Wood, Karen C. C. Dalton and Richard J. Powell mounted a traveling exhibition of Homer’s work entitled “Winslow Homer’s Images of Blacks: The Civil War and Reconstruction Years.”

According to Christopher Kent Wilson’s review of the show “Through the perceptive eyes of the artist, we see how Homer perceived many of the critical issues facing Afro-Americans, including emancipation, discrimination, military service, and education.”

Building on the show’s thesis, Wiley seizes this opportunity and uses this narrative to contextualize his discussion of contemporary politics surrounding uprooted cultures.

Art on Life after Slavery

Homer left a prominent illustration career to pursue painting in the 1860s. He first came to fame as a war artist capturing scenes from the front during the Civil War. Hailing from the North, Homer was a Unionist and supported the project to abolish slavery and build a more democratic America.

In his early work he seems to celebrate the modern democratic values of post war American life through happy paintings of country children going to school, women’s participation in the public sphere and the life and culture of African Americans.

In the 1870s he took a trip to Petersburg, Virginia, and produced a series of paintings that portray the lives of an African American community after the Civil War. This series was produced around the same time that Reconstruction was effectively ended. Some scholars have suggested that embedded in this work is a social critique of the Union’s failure to see through the Reconstruction process and “the slow but insidious renewal of black servitude” (Wilson).

Dressing for the Carnival Winslow Homer 1877
Dressing for the Carnival, Winslow Homer, 1877

Like Wiley, Homer uses costume to express the complexity of African American identity. According to Nicolai Cikovsky, in his painting Dressing for the Carnival, “these figures dressed for a carnival – the older man as Harlequin in the European comedia dell’arte tradition, but, like the taller boy, with torn strips of cloth that derive from the African ceremonial dress – and the two boys who hold American flags, all describe the complexity of its uprooted culture” (Cikovsky, Winslow Homer)

Wilson takes this interpretation a step further writing, “The artist may have been raising questions about black independence after Reconstruction: In the future, will blacks celebrate and truly participate in national independence as symbolized by the American flags, or will they have to revert to their former celebrations of temporary independence as embodied in the Jonkonnu costume” (Wilson, The Journal of American History)

There is a very obvious shift in mood over the course Homer’s life. As if retreating from society, he moves into a cabin in the woods and his main focus becomes landscape. The figures that do make it into his later work are fisherman and hunters (also living outside of modern society).

In 1884 he takes his first trip to the Caribbean, visiting the Bahamas, Cuba and Florida. Over the next 15 years he makes several trips to paint Caribbean fisherman at work. This project culminates in his painting The Gulf Stream.

The Gulf Stream Winslow Homer 1899
The Gulf Stream, Winslow Homer, 1899

Like the United States, the Caribbean islands abolished slavery during the 19th century but the region was also facing challenges in their campaign to build a new democratic society. Weather or not it was the artist’s intention, the painting The Gulf Stream evoques the uncertainty that was facing this newly freed population in the Americas.

It is this analogy of the sea as limbo that Wiley transports a century later into his latest body of work In search of the Miraculous.

Kehinde Wiley’s New Series

Wiley is best know as “a man on mission to make blackness visible in a history of art that has ignored people of colour for centuries” (Spence, FT). In his portrait art he replaces the nobility of old Europe with young urban men (and more recently, women).

But this new series is about a lot more than visibility. In this series Wiley gives his subjects a specific geographic location and asks the viewer to build a relationship between person and place.

In an interview with the Financial Times Wiley says, “I am asking the question: is the sea friend or foe?”

The Fog Warning Kehinde Wiley 2017
The Fog Warning (Jasmine Gracout), Kehinde Wiley, 2017, Stephen Friedman Gallery

For this series, Wiley used a group of Haitian men as his subject. In nine paintings Wiley shows various scenes of his sitters on the shore looking out to rough waters or navigating their boats through a storm.

These images easily evoke hurricanes and issues of migration in the Trump and Brexit era. But by connecting his work to that of Homer, Wiley asks the viewer to step back and consider the whole history of the African diaspora.

“Others might see maritime painting as a really wonderful way of looking at gentlemen’s leisure, or a certain aspect of Western ingenuity and know-how,” Mr. Wiley explained to the New York Times. Yet to him, “the genre evokes an age of exploration that gave rise to sugar-cane fields in Jamaica, cotton fields in South Carolina and rice fields in Georgia,” he said.

In this series Wiley is asking a question about the nature of progress. Weather it be the French Revolution, Haitian Revolution or American Civil War the nineteenth century was defined by civil movements fighting for social equality. Wiley’s new show reminds us that the image portrayed in Homer’s The Gulf Stream can so easily evoque contemporary issues – calling us to question our progress on issues of social equality.

“My work is a contemporary call to arms. It is time to get our mojo back. To rediscover our true north” (Spence, FT).

Kehinde Wiley and Beauty

Wiley is taking on some weighty issues. Yet, in spite of the gravity of his subject he remains positive.

“I stand on the shoulders of those who survived slavery and colonialism. Of those who created jazz, the blues and hip-hop from the most perilous situations” (Nayer, NYT).

Wiley’s work has always been defined by a belief in beauty. His work is sometimes criticized for his idealistic portrayal of his subjects. This series is no exception. Despite the disastrous conditions surrounding the figures in this latest series they maintain their idealised beauty.

In a Guardian review Sky Sherwin comments “Instead of the mad outsiders evoked by Foucault and Fanon, Wiley’s sitters are a sanctioned physical ideal. They seem to have fast-forwarded over any trauma implied by their isolation and those dangerous waters, offering instead the aspirational vision of luminous young black skin that has always obsessed the artist” (Sherwin, The Gaurdian)

Fishermen Upon a Lee-shore in Squally Weather kehinde wiley 2017
Fishermen Upon a Lee-shore, in Squally Weather (Zakary Antoine), Kehinde Wiley, 2017, Stephen Friedman Gallery

But consider how the artist discusses his own upbringing:

” [I had] an amazing childhood, despite what you might think about black struggle and poor neighbourhoods and the ghetto. My mother was an educated budding linguist who really inspired us” (Nayer, NYT).

With this biographical insight we can understand physical beauty as a metaphor for inner strength and the nobility of his subject. Adding yet another level by which to understand these paintings.

One key difference in the painting of Wiley and that of Homer is the subjects response to his situation. In Homer’s work the sitter is portrayed as victim. He is portrayed motionless, presumably awaiting his fate. In Wiley’s  In search of the Miraculous  series his subject are seen battling the storm. Homer is guilty of a paternalistic view of his subject. Wiley corrects this and shows his subject ready to fight the elements.

In this new series Wiley offers us not only an image of the hardship of a people trying to overcome a colonial past, he does something revolutionary for painting. He breaks the voyeuristic gaze that has defined western painting and asks us to view his subject as they wish to be seen.



Sherwin, Skye. “Kehinde Wiley review – black souls sail between empowerment and exploitation.” The Guardian, Friday 24 November 2017.

Spence, Rachel. “Kehinde Wiley’s contemporary call to arms.” The Financial Times, December 1, 2017.

Nayeri, Farah. “Kehinde Wiley on Painting the Powerless. And a President.” The New York Times, November 27, 2017.

Wilson, Christopher Kent. “Winslow Homer’s Images of Blacks: The Civil War and Reconstruction Years.” The Journal of American History 77, no. 1 (1990): 246-53. doi:10.2307/2078659.

Cikovsky, N., Kelly, F. and Homer, W. (1995). Winslow Homer. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art.



The women of 19th century Grez-sur-Loing

There is something both compelling and moving, I felt, in the way certain male artists portrayed women: a kind of longing that was not just an expression of the erotic…[but] a desire to be the other as well as to view her, and at the same time an acknowledgement of irrevocable separation. – Wendy Lesser

Femme Sculpteur portrait William Blair Bruce
Femme Sculpteur, by William Blair Bruce, 1891

Femme Sculpteur is a portrait of the Swedish artist Caroline Bruce produced by her husband, the Canadian painter William Blair Bruce. The painting was exhibited at the 1891 Salon of the Société des Artistes Français in Paris, France.  

The two met a decade earlier in the small artistic community of Grez, France. Like many small French villages at the time Grez was home to a community of artists painting landscape in the impressionist style.

What set Grez apart from many of the other artist colonies was its cosmopolitan nature (Swedish, British, American and even Japanese artists painted there) and the presence of a large contingent of female painters.

History remembers the men, but women actually had a commanding presence in 19th century impressionist painting – a fact currently being celebrated in the show, Her Paris: Women Artists in the Age of Impressionismcurated by Laurence Madeline.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me

To say this was a golden age for women’s liberation would be an exaggeration. Women only ever made up about 10% of exhibitors at the salon and, as Madeline talks about in the catalogue for her show, much of the work of these pioneering women has been lost overtime.

Double Portrait Emma Löwstädt Francis Brook Chadwick
Double Portrait, by Francis Chadwick, 1898

Interestingly, one record of the female artists in Grez that has survived is works by male artists depicting these women working in Grez. Paintings like the above Double Portrait, by Francis Chadwick, depict women at work and as professional equals to their male counterparts.

The sort of respect shown to the female subject is noteworthy if we consider how women were portrayed in the preceding Rococo and the eventual Modernist periods.

rococo boucher
Brown Odalisque, by Francois Boucher


de kooning woman portrait
Woman I, by Willem De Kooning, 1950-52

Social propriety in the 19th century

After a visit to the Bruce couple, the German artist Jelka Rosen had this to say about the work of our ‘Femme Sculpteur’ Caroline Bruce:

In her studio she had the life-size nude of the baker in Grez which she had done for the Salon. This nasty statue stood in her sitting room in a corner with its back to the public, so as not to show his sex, althou [sic] she had modeled this part in great detail.

Women at the time were under a great deal of pressure to follow strict moral codes. In the arts this presented a real challenge as the instruction of the day was based around the study of the nude model. Moreover, the idea of a women moving to an artist colony and living alone was also considered risky behaviour.

So how did so many women overcome this sort of societal pressure?

Reasonable accommodation for women

academie julian women
Academie Julian, Paris, group of art students, circa 1885

Mary Alcott Nieriker (sister of Louisa May Alcott) wrote a “how to guide” for women wishing to study art in France. In her book she encouraged women interested in plein air to choose Grez over the risky Barbizon which was known for its vie boheme.

Grez’s reputation as accommodating to “female needs” was due to the Hotel Chevillon and “Mère” Chevillon who acted as a sort of den mother to women staying in her lodging keeping the place “respectable” for female guests.

Many of the women at Grez came from the Académie Julian, a private art school in Paris which was the first French institution to accept women.

In the early years of the Académie women were simply “not excluded” and allowed to study alongside men. According to the school’s founder Rodolph Julian the women that joined the school were all foreigners. In an interview with Sketch, a British art journal, Julian comments on this arrangement:

It was extremely awkward and disagreeable and I soon saw that if I were to hope to get my own country women to work with me I should have to make different arrangements.

His solution was to set up a separate atelier for women. During a period of transition, women could choose to study in one atelier or the other, but eventually rules were established that excluded women from the men’s atelier.

It’s very easy to look at the situation through a contemporary lens and criticize the separation and supervision of these women.

However, Art Historian Catherine Fehrer suggests that in the case of the Académie this decision was not taken on account of male students but “responded more to the needs of bourgeois families who […] were fearful of mixed classes.”

This idea that the women’s ateliers were more of an accommodation than an assault on women’s rights seems credible when you consider that women’s enrollment at the Académie rose from a handful of students to 50 to 60 per year after the separate ateliers were established.

Women encouraged to compete

rosa bonher portrait debufe
Portrait de Marie-Rosalie dite Rosa Bonheur, By Édouard Dubufe, 1857

Another sign of the director’s commitment to his female students is the way in which internal concours (competitions) were organised.

The school was renowned not just for teaching its students technique, but also for teaching them how to survive the art world. Monthly concours were organised for students to learn how to prepare for the competitive Salon system that awaited them after their studies.

Although women and men studied in separate facilities, the competitions were mixed and adjudicating professors were not told the name or the gender of participants until after prizes were awarded.

Many women from the Académie did go on to show in the Salon. Rosa Bonheur, the foremost animal painter of the time said, “M. Julian understands that by determination and perseverance, a woman can very well equal a man in the science and the arts.”

This is by no means a story of revolution, it is a story of reform. It is an example of how a society can work to understand the needs of a marginalized population and find ways to begin including them.

In our present age where the question of equality is ever being negotiated, this story of the inclusion is a relevant example of how considerate accommodation can act as a catalyst for social change.   

Carolina Benedicks-Bruce with her sculpture L'obsède 1910
Carolina Benedicks-Bruce with her sculpture L’obsède 1910

Sources used for this post:

Nochlin, Linda. (1971). Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? Woman in Sexist Society: Studies in Power and Powerlessness

Fehrer, Catherine. (1994). Women at the Academie Julian in Paris. The Burlington Magazine (Vol. 136, No. 110), pp. 752-757

Curator, Bruce, Tobi ; with essays by Gehmacher, Arlene & Koval, Anne & Gredts, William H. & Fox, Ross. (2014). Into the light : the paintings of William Blair Bruce (1859-1906)

Edited and Introduced by Murray, Joan. Letters Home: 1859-1906 The Letters Of William Blair Bruce. Newcastle:  Penumbra Press , 1982. Print

Warhol’s Academy

Andy Warhol had a supernatural ability to be present to great moments of history. In the 1960’s, his factory played center stage for the sexual revolution and in the 1980’s he helped bring Jean-Michel Basquiat’s street art to the gallery scene.

Andy Warhol 60 Last Suppers
60 Last Suppers, Andy Warhol, Photo Credit Christie’s

This month, Warhol’s Sixty Last Suppers acted as a bridge to the contemporary art world for Leonardo Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi at the historic Christie’s auction.  In the marketing campaign that led up to the sale, Christie’s used Warhol’s piece to remind us of Da Vinci’s contemporary appeal.

Sixty Last Suppers was one of Warhol’s last works, produced shortly before his death the next year. The work speaks to Warhol’s connection and interest in classical art and reminds us of another movement in which he played a supporting role: Classical Realism.

Andy Warhol Crusader for Tradition?

After his death, when his collection was made public at auction, it was discovered that Warhol was a major collector of classical art. His vast collection included an ancient marble head of Hermes, a plaster bust of Napoleon and a painting by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (the white rabbit of Classical Realism).

Many were surprised when the nature of his collection was discovered. It seemed counter intuitive that the heir to the readymade movement would collect artifacts that exemplify such a classic definition of the art object.

To make sense of his collection the Los Angeles Times interviewed his longtime friend and fellow collector Stuart Pivar, who stated that, “his overall game plan, what he really believed, was that the modern age was going away and that we were entering a neoclassical period.”

In 1982, the two had co-founded the New York Academy of Art – an institution that’s mission was to provide students with a classical education in art. Warhol benefited from a classical education and initially observers assumed Warhol’s involvement was an act of “paying it forward”. But with the revelation of his collection and Pivar’s statement we can read his involvement as a more active participation in what was then the fledgling Classic Realist movement.

So what is Classical Realism?

Daniel Graves Self Portrait Florence Academy
Self Portrait, Daniel Graves, Photo Credit the artist

Classical Realism (which also goes by “Old Master” realism; Contemporary Realism and, my favorite, Post-Contemporary Art) is a movement that values the learning of technical skill and the pursuit of beauty in art making.

It would be romantic (in its perfect irony) to credit the prince of readymade art with the birth of Classical Realism, but the New York Academy is only one of several actors who pioneered this return to a classical aesthetic.

The Classical Realist movement has its origins in 1969 Minneapolis where the first contemporary atelier, Atelier Lack, was founded. In the 1980’s the movement grew to Florence, Italy, and New York.

In 1984, the American school, Studio Cecil-Graves, was opened in Florence. The school would eventually dissolve into two separate ateliers including the Florence Academy which now boasts 3 campuses (in Sweden, Italy and the USA) and is arguably the most well known school teaching the Classical Realist curriculum.

The New York Academy was the first Classical Realist school to open in New York but in its first decade the school struggled with conflict in its administration. Arguably, it’s slow ignition made space for another school, the Water Street Atelier (now the Grand Central Atelier), to take root and flourish.

The founder of the Water Street Atelier, Jacob Collins, grew up in a family with strong ties to the New York Art world (his great uncle was art historian Meyer Schapiro). He has been a very vocal advocate for the Classical Realist movement and has gotten the attention of major media outlets like the New York Times and the New Yorker.

30 years later it would be an exaggeration to say that Classical Realism is a major player in the art world. However, the movement has been steadily growing.

According to the Art Renewal Center

To the best of our knowledge there were 7 such ateliers in 1980. By 2002 the number of such schools had grown to 14 with each having between 5 and 15 students … 14 years later, there are over 100 schools teaching the atelier style training and thousands of students.

Interestingly, in true Warhol style, the New York Academy has evolved into a sort of foil to the Classical Realist movement. Whereas leaders like Daniel Graves and Jacob Collins take a hard line to the necessity of beauty and technique in their practice, the New York Academy is much more open to the aesthetic of mainstream contemporary art.

The range in style housed at the Academy could be demonstrated by the work of two senior critics at the school: Steven Assael and Eric Fischl. Steven Assael’s work embodies the essence of Classical Realism. Eric Fishel works in the realist genre but his focus favors concept over classical technique.

Steven Assael
Andrea, Steven Assael, Photo Credit Artist


Eric Fischl Father and Son
Father and Son, Eric Fischl, Photo Credit the artist

Warhol’s legacy

Warhol’s genius in this story is that he was able to identify and contribute to an artistic movement as it was germinating – a skill that defined him throughout his career. Moreover, he should be credited for his openness to participate in a movement that challenged the very foundation of his own work.

Next year, the Whitney Museum will be hosting a retrospective on Warhol and has promised to focus not only on his earlier body of work, but also on the latter half of his career. Although highly unlikely, I hope that the Whitney acknowledges this realist chapter in his career and its significance to the proverbial question: What is art?

Understanding Shuffleton’s Barbershop as Site Specific to the Berkshire Museum

Museum Sells Rockwell Gift

Since July, the small community of Berkshire has been rocked by the proposed sale of Norman Rockwell’s Shuffleton’s Barbershop.

Shuffleton's Barbershop Rockwell
Shuffleton’s Barbershop, 1950

Stating financial woes, the Berkshire Museum was set to auction the work (along with 40 others) at Sotheby’s American Arts Sale on November 13th, 2017. At the last minute a decision by the court set an injunction delaying the sale long enough to avoid this year’s Sotheby’s sale (the works future is still in question).

Citing a 1943 case, Wellesley College v. Attorney General, the Attorney General argued that the “assets of charitable corporations, of which the museum is one, are subject to the purposes for which those assets were given.”

The painting was originally gifted to the Museum by the artist. The family of Rockwell produced a letter exchange between Rockwell and the museum that affirms Rockwell’s intention that his donation remain a part of the museum’s permanent collection.

Why Rockwell chose this Museum

This story reveals the unique relationship between the subject of the work and the space it inhabits. Hailed as Rockwell’s chef d’oeuvre (valued at $20 to $30 million USD), one might ask themselves what such a work was ever doing in a small regional museum?

He produced the painting in 1950 as cover art for the Saturday Evening Post. Living in the region at the time, he based the work on an actual barbershop located in the New England region and (as was his practice) used local community members as models for the musicians in the scene.

The barbershop and models in the painting were in Arlington, Vermont, where Rockwell lived before relocating to Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

By giving this work to the people and place where it was created, the painting makes a deliberate referral to it’s local context reinforcing the conceptual idea behind the painting.

The piece, depicting three men playing classical instruments in the back of a barbershop, asserts the place of “high art” in middle America. In choosing the Berkshire and not a more “prestigious” museum, Rockwell brings his idea of enlightened regional culture full circle.

Rockwell and the Avant-Garde

Rockwell is often criticised as sentimental or overly optimistic in his depiction of American life. The godfather of Abstract Expressionism, Clement Greenberg, disparages the artist as being the worst of the Kitsch.

But social activist Dorothy Canfield Fisher writes an important defence of his work for the preface of the book Norman Rockwell Illustrator:

No one can deny that in many tenement houses the poor are ground down by poverty, disease or racial injustice… Our hearts have been frozen by many a powerful book- presentation of this literal but partial truth. Norman Rockwell reminds us that in those same tenement houses are also many homes in which the safe return of a soldier son sets off an explosion of a joy magnificent in its power and purity.

Rockwell Homecoming
Homecoming G.I., 1945

Tucked in a corner in the modern section of the Metropolitan Museum a small Rockwell hangs near Picasso and his gang of avant gardists. Like Fisher suggests, Rockwell’s work reminds us of the complex nature of truth and its correlation to one’s frame of reference.

Like the characters of Shuffleton’s Barbershop, Rockwell is no bumpkin. He visited Paris to study in his early years and was familiar with the avant garde, making several experimentations with modern technique. Ultimately he chose to paint in a traditional style, and despite great wealth and fame, he chose to live his life in the country – away from any art mecca.

rockwell abstract art

His perspective of the American life is informed by the position from which he chose to view the world. Rockwell’s work is not a complete truth, but importantly, it represents a side of the story that is often overlooked.

He is the ultimate punk. Eat your heart out Greenberg.

Please note the article was updated to correct an inaccuracy. The article original stated the painting was created in Berkshire. The work was actually painted in Arlington, VT. 

What is Bourgeurauté?

A look at a painterly approach : Edgar Degas & William-Adolphe Bouguereau

In his own time, Bouguereau was considered to be one of the greatest painters in the world by the academic art community, and simultaneously he was reviled by the avant-garde. To many, he epitomized taste and refinement, and a respect for tradition. To others, he was a competent technician stuck in the past. Degas and his associates used the term “Bouguereauté” in a derogatory manner to describe any artistic style reliant on “slick and artificial surfaces”. (source wikipedia)

This rivalry between Edgar Degas and William-Adolphe Bougeureau encapsulates the spectrum of a painterly approaches available to an artist.

Drawing the structure of art

Drawing can be understood like the grammar of visual art. Innate to drawing are a set of rules that help the artist define space in a picture.

What’s important to note is that structurally both of these artists are following the same rules. If we look at sketches done by both artists we can see the similarity in their drawing process. Both are respecting perspective, proportions and the science of light.

Bougeureau blog
Bouguereau, Nymphs and Satyr Study


Degas Blog
Degas, Ballerina Study

Where artists like Degas and Bouguereau differ is in the final resolve of the painting.

Different approaches to describing Form

It can be said that the resolve of a picture is determined by the degree to which form is rendered.

Bougeureau meticulously renders his work. This means the artist gives a full description of shape as it transitions from the shadow area to the light.

Conversely, Degas work is marked by his economy of brush strokes. He employs a pictorial language that indicates rather than demonstrates the roundness of his figures.

Bougeureau Painting Blog
Bougeureau, The Shepherdess


Degas Painting Blog
Degas, Ballerinas

Approach: Ideal v. Real

Truth has always been at the heart of artistic endeavor and throughout history artists have shifted between a definition that centers around the notions of the real and the ideal.

In the above painting, Bouguereau depicts an idealized peasant girl.  The artist constructs a definition of pastoral life by bringing together a series of visual elements (her look, cloths, setting). The image is artificial in that his subject is not a real person. But his intention is not to present us with a real shepherdess, he is instead presenting the viewer with the idea of a shepherdess.

Degas’ ballerinas are captured in dynamic poses that express their immediate reality. There is very little detail to describe their appearance yet the authentic nature of their action represents another kind of truth based on a lived experience. This sensation of voyeurism is amplified by Degas’s economy of strokes. Working in an abbreviated manner allows artists to work quickly and from life. By leaving the painting in this state the artist signals his proximity to his subject.

Beyond “style” we can understand both artists’ process in conceptual terms. Each artist’s’ approach to rendering their pictures reveals much about the notion of truth.